The ’Hawks will leave the nest early to start the 2019-20 campaign. The first destination is more than 3,000 miles away in Costa Rica.
Every four years, NCAA basketball programs are allowed a preseason international trip. Years of planning have led to this month’s trip to Central America, as Fort Lewis College will play three games from Aug. 21-27.
The Skyhawks have nine new players on a roster of 16 that will make the trip. When head coach Bob Pietrack and associate head coach Daniel Steffensen took a long-range look at the program years ago, they knew this season would be one with many new pieces. Because of the international trip, FLC was able to begin practice Aug. 9, almost a month before the team would usually meet.
FLC will play three games against the Costa Rica All-Stars, a professional team that has played against NCAA Division I programs all summer. The trip, booked through Beyond Sports, ensures competitive games, as players can be added and subtracted from the All-Stars roster to match up well against their opponent.
“I have no idea what to expect,” said FLC redshirt junior forward Riley Farris, who is set to make his return from shoulder surgery that ended his 2018-19 season after six stellar games. “Obviously, they are a very good pro team. Whatever they put out there, we will play our best and hope for the best.”
FLC practiced hard in the week leading up to the trip. Getting players conditioned to compete up and down the floor for a full game this early in the year was the difficult aspect. So far, gelling the new players together has not been an issue.
“This team, we don’t have any problems with each other,” said sophomore forward Brendan La Rose. “Last year, a lot of guys didn’t buy in all the way. I don’t see that as a problem with this team. We get to go to Costa Rica now and bond some more, and that can only be great for us.”
The Skyhawks have only two seniors on the team, and both are transfers this year from Division I programs. Robbie Berwick is a transfer from Colorado State, and Danny Garrick transferred from Nicholls State. With so many young players projected to compete together for the next two-plus seasons, Pietrack and Steffensen felt this year was the right time for an international trip.
“Strategically, we tried to do it in a year in which we had a lot of new faces,” Pietrack said. “These practices have been enormous for us, and we’ve gotten a lot better in just the eight days we’ve practiced so far. Our goal for this whole trip is to establish some continuity with playing with each other because we have so many new faces.
“We’ve accomplished that now in practice, and we got to translate it onto the court when we play those three games. The main thing is we wanted to spend this month of August together so when we got back to school Sept. 2 it felt like we had returners and not a bunch of new guys. It will give us an advantage moving forward, and those games in November come really quick.”
FLC is allowed to spend four hours on the court and four hours of conditioning per week once school begins Sept. 2. Full practices do not start until Oct. 15, and the Skyhawks will open the season Nov. 9.
In Costa Rica, FLC will get to play in a beautiful stadium, BN Arena, during the stay in San José, the capital city. The arena seats 5,200 fans and was built in 2013. When not playing, FLC will complete community service projects with Special Olympics of Costa Rica and interact with children at area schools. The team also has rafting and zip-line trips planned.
“After last year, coach kind of told us two days in advance that he had some sort of surprise for us,” La Rose said. “I was worried; I thought it was going to be a bad surprise. Then, he told us we were going to Costa Rica. I had no idea, and it totally blindsided me. We were all pretty happy after that.”
The first game is scheduled for Wednesday night with another game Thursday. FLC will then be off until the third game Aug. 27 and will return Aug. 28 to Durango. Pietrack plans to play a deep roster, a luxury he did not have last season when the team finished 12-16 overall and missed the RMAC and NCAA Division II tournaments for the first time in Pietrack’s four years in charge of the program.
During that time, the coaches set aside funds to make this year’s trip possible with the goal of once again contending for the conference championship the next two seasons.
“You gotta love being a ’Hawk,” Farris said. “I’m really grateful for the coaches. Everybody is feeling good about this trip, and all the guys are focusing and working hard. We’re a lot more focused than we have been in years it feels like, so it’s going to be a good year going forward.”